State of Customer Service in America


–My Kindle: Lost in Chicago & Found in Ashville, North Carolina


Customer Service Is About Customer SatisfactionFor service businesses, quality is all about customer service. When there is a customer service issue, companies that rise to the challenge create a bond between the firm and its customers. As such, customer service is the new marketing. This I learned from an experience that I had this summer.

Since we are passionate about tennis, in August we took a trip to Cincinnati where we saw an ATP tournament. We booked our round-trip flight from Chicago with United Airlines.

When we got home and unpacked, I realized that my Kindle was missing. I last recalled having it in my possession on the return flight, when I had put it into the seat-back pocket in front of me. I immediately got on the Internet, and attempted to look up United’s customer service phone number.

I found an 800 number, but became increasingly frustrated as I navigated countless phone trees, unable to successfully make contact with a human being. My frustration turned to anger when I learned that to communicate with United’s Customer Service department about a past incident, I either had to email customer relations or post a written letter.

The next day, I played golf and recounted my story. I ranted about the quality of customer service in the U.S. One of my fellow golfers mentioned that he knew someone who worked in a management position at United. He offered to intervene on my behalf. I accepted his kind gesture.

The next day, I got an email from a senior customer service representative at United. She did everything within her power to locate my Kindle. I got the sense that if my e-reader had found its way to Brazil, she would have tracked it down.  I learned that there were dozens of Kindles in the lost-and-found at United’s Chicago O’Hare terminal. In addition, I discovered that many travelers leave iPads and other electronic gadgets on airplanes.

Despite United’s valiant efforts to track down my errant, electronic device, the company was unable to find it. However, three months later—during the Christmas holidays—I got an email from Amazon, indicating someone had found my e-reader. Amazon gave me the individual’s phone number, and informed me that we would have to work out the terms of its return. I contacted the individual. He told me that he bought my Kindle at a flea market in Ashville, NC. He had paid $25 for it. He said that he tried to download a book from Amazon, but was advised that his newly purchased device had been stolen. Thus, he was unable to use it to buy books.

I agreed to pay the cost of shipping, if he would return it to me. He consented to this offer. I asked him how I would know where to send the check. He told me to  “look at the return address.” Within a week, I got a package containing my Kindle. The return address stated:

Santa Claus

Ashville, NC

My customer service contact at United was delighted and amazed at the story of how I got my Kindle back. She said that she would pass it along to those who needed to know. Two weeks later, I got a $100 voucher from United applicable to any flight that I book.

There are several lessons that I learned from this experience:

  • E-mail is an impersonal, frustrating medium for expressing customer service issues
  • In the final analysis, customer service is about customer satisfaction—on this count, United Air Lines won me over.
  • Most—but not all—people are honest
  • NEVER place anything of value within the seat-back pockets of airplanes.

What is your experience with the state of customer service in America?

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